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Disability Benefit Claimants

Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that guidance to frontline staff on how to treat vulnerable disability benefit claimants is followed.

The DWP has a range of methods in place to ensure that front-line colleagues follow the guidance correctly when supporting vulnerable customers. These include quality checking of calls with claimants, examining notes and other actions, as well as checking the technical aspects of a case. DWP staff also have clear escalation routes in place to help colleagues support vulnerable customers. These include referral to vulnerable customer champions and advanced customer support senior leaders, who can help where additional support needs are identified.

My Lords, I welcome that reply as far as it goes, but what we need to know now is what measures the Government have in place to identify vulnerable disability claimants who have died, some by suicide and some by serious harm in which the DWP or its contractors may be implicated.

We feel very sad about anyone who takes our DWP welfare and is made sick or, sadly, dies; our hearts go out to them. However, we have made a range of improvements, increasing staff awareness of the vulnerability of claimants and how to respond to that. Training now includes mental health awareness, unconscious bias training and how to manage specific vulnerabilities such as homelessness and domestic abuse.

Does the Minister agree that the problems relating to welfare benefits are less to do with staff guidance and more to do with the low levels of benefits, along with the inflexibility of the system? Does she accept that however well trained front-line staff are, they cannot compensate for a system that Disability Rights UK has described as unfit for purpose?

I am sorry, but I do not agree with the noble Baroness. Over the past 18 months we have invested heavily in welfare. The most important thing we do is to look after our vulnerable customers and make sure that they get the welfare they are entitled to.

My Lords, front-line staff will deal not only with people with disabilities but those suffering with mental health conditions. Many of these conditions may not be obvious to staff. What training do front-line staff receive on mental health conditions?

My noble friend is correct that this is also about mental health conditions. Since 2018, the DWP has provided training on supporting vulnerable customers. That training goes out to all new staff in service delivery. We have also been rolling out further training on mental health behaviour and relationships. This is supported by comprehensive guidance covering a range of different complex needs. For disability benefits assessments, health professionals will have undergone comprehensive recent training on functional disability and mental health conditions. Mental health function champions provide additional expertise to those teams within the assessment centres.

My Lords, there is a history here of the first interview not going well and not establishing the underlying problem. What training—training is not the right word—what freedom is given to the initial interviewer to say, “I do not understand everything that is going on here”, and to be able to call for help? Will this be taken as a benefit and not something that is simply slowing down the system?

I know that the noble Lord understands these systems very well. All health professionals receive comprehensive training in disability analysis, which includes an evaluation of how medical conditions affect claimants in their day-to-day activities, as well as awareness training in specific conditions. He probably knows that with regard to autistic spectrum disorder, staff are working with the Autism Alliance to develop further training specifically to help people who find those first interactions with the system very difficult. We are also putting clear markings on assessments when they are first made in order to identify those people with vulnerabilities.

My Lords, I am interested in the work of the Serious Case Panel. Is my noble friend able to give me an update on the work of this panel and its progress?

My Lords, the Serious Case Panel was established only last year—2020. It has now met five times and it is going to meet very soon—later this month. The panel does not investigate individual cases; it considers themes arising from a range of sources, including internal process reviews and front-line feedback, which is important. It also agrees recommendations for organisational learning, where needed, and will assign a director-general for committee accountability for delivering these recommendations within the department. It may be useful for noble Lords to know that the panel’s terms of reference and minutes from all its meetings can be seen on GOV.UK.

My Lords, I declare my registered links with Mencap. Does the department have any staff members specifically trained to communicate with people suffering from learning disabilities? If so, does the department take proactive steps to make known to such people, and to their carers, that this facility does in fact exist?

My Lords, yes, we do. We have mental health function champions. The assessment of mental, cognitive and intellectual function is an integral part of all disability benefit assessments. Health professionals have undergone comprehensive training in the functional assessment of disabilities and that includes mental health conditions.

My Lords, we have a systemic problem. The NAO found that at least 69 suicides could be linked to problems with benefit claims and that the DWP had failed to investigate many of those cases properly or learn from them. The Minister mentioned the Serious Case Panel. I have looked at those minutes and I am sorry to say that they are so brief and redacted as to be pretty much entirely unrevealing. How can the House be assured that every recommendation from an internal process review will in future be implemented?

There are three different panels here. We have the internal review panel, which looks, as the noble Baroness said, into specific cases. Then there is an internal process review group of senior officers and leaders in the DWP who will look at the IRP actions and feed into the wider organisation. That is important. Then we have the Serious Case Panel, which considers systemic themes and issues coming from IPRs and learns from them and acts on them.

My Lords, what training and support have Her Majesty’s Government put in place for staff who may be dealing with people with suicidal thoughts or plans?

My noble friend raises an important issue. Comprehensive guidance is available to all work coaches and case managers on how to deal with threats of self-harm. This guidance applies to all methods of communication, including the online journal. When a threat of self-harm is identified, agents follow a six-point plan and I am happy to let my noble friend have that. The plan helps them take the right action, at the right time, to ensure that the customer receives the support they need.

My Lords, the Minister has given us an extensive account of mental health training. I am sure she is aware of the Z2K #PeopleBeforeProcess report which looked at PIP payments. One of the respondents to the survey behind that report said that the assessor

“noted in the report that I couldn’t have mental health problems as I wasn’t rocking back and forward.”

How does the Minister account for that statement and many others in that report in the light of the training she outlined?

All I can say to the noble Baroness is that that is obviously unacceptable. The DWP will look at that report and take action.